Last week, Polynesian activists accused Disney of promoting “brownface” after it advertised a full body children’s costume depicting the tattooed Pacific demi-god Maui. Weeks earlier, a Perth mother who painted her son’s skin black so he could dress for a school parade as his “idol”, AFL footballer Nic Naitanui, was widely criticised for promoting “blackface”.
Such events occur with disturbing regularity in Australia. Earlier this year, for instance, Australian Opals basketball team member Alice Kunek apologised after posting a photo of herself on Instagram in blackface. The fact that they do highlights an ongoing lack of understanding of what blackface symbolises and why people find it offensive.
To help explain why blackface is more than a simple case of harmless parody or even “honouring your hero,” it is important to understand its historical beginnings.
In medieval Europe, blackface was often used for entertainment. For example, in France and Italy, black masked figures would act out antisocial behaviour such as crudeness, violence or magic.
In 19th century America, white performers would put dark paint on their faces and perform ridiculous stereotypes about African Americans in Minstrel shows. As Norm Sheehan has written, blackface began as a popular movement that ridiculed and lampooned African Americans leading up to the American Civil War. It continued until the 1970s.
In Melbourne, in the 1880s, writes historian Melissa Bellanta, the Apollo Hall was a blackface minstrel venue. Audiences cheered on white actors with their faces painted with burnt cork and more unusually, a group of African American performers known as the Georgia Minstrels also performed blackface caricatures.
Bellanta highlights that “blackness” was historically used to symbolise social groups, beliefs and behaviours that were despised by society at the time.
Newman’s blackface ridicule of Winmar undermined his important status as an anti-racism activist. Even if this was unintentional, it showed the potentially serious implications of what some regard as “just harmless fun”.